The Question of Being

When I began my thesis, I started with the naive assumption that most people knew what was meant by Heidegger’s ‘question of the meaning of Being’. Indeed, I thought I knew. The first two years were a systematic exercise in uncovering just how much others, and myself, had taken for granted that we understand what this question is, and simply proceeded to talk about other things, be it the specifics of Heidegger’s own philosophy or the relative merits of other attempts to answer this question.

There is a horrible irony in this. Heidegger raised the question of the meaning of Being in response to the fact that although we think we know what we mean by ‘being’, when pressed we are unable to say what it is precisely that we mean. Moreover, he showed that the fact that we did not see this as itself problematic indicated a historical trend of the forgetting of Being, perpetrated largely by metaphysics. Many of the thinkers who come after Heidegger acknowledge Heidegger’s diagnosis, and they go on to talk about Being in a properly theoretical register, but I get the sense that if they are pressed they are equally unable to say what it is they mean. Being thus becomes an almost empty concept in much philosophical discussion, used in a haphazard way that hinders real attempts at understanding and obfuscates its philosophical import. If anything, this is a worse forgetting of the issue than that perpetrated by metaphysics itself, because we have moved from mistakenly thinking that we know what ‘being’ means in a pre-theoretical way to mistakenly thinking we know what it means in a properly theoretical way. The former is a matter of familiarity while the latter is a matter of hubris.

Obviously, I’m not claiming that all post-Heideggerian thinkers are prone to this misunderstanding. However, I do think that much Heidegger scholarship, and some post-Heideggerian philosophical projects are simply not rigorous enough in delineating what they mean when they talk about Being or the question of Being. In this post I want to try and undo some of the obfuscation this causes by laying out what I take the question of the meaning of Being (or simply the question of Being) to be. Hopefully, this should also illuminate some things I have said elsewhere about the nature of ontology and its relationship to metaphysics (especially here).

One final warning: this post is very abstract. Such is the peril of thinking about Being. If you don’t want to deal with such heavy abstraction, my advice is to think about beings. This post is also very long, pushing 7,000 words this time. I thank anyone who takes the time to read the whole thing in advance, although it need not be consumed in one sitting.

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Applied Critique: Existence, Pseudo-Existence and OOO

Over at larvalsubjects (in order: here, here, herehere and most recently here), I’ve been having a discussion with Levi about existence, and the idea of fictional existence more specifically (more like pestering him about it, but I digress). I’m very interested in fictional existence because I take it to be a prime example of what I call pseudo-existence. This is a concept I have mentioned before in relation to my claim that norms have no real Being, i.e., they are pseudo-beings. The discussion has forced me to start clearing up a few things, and it struck me that explaining this concept of pseudo-existence is a good way of showing how my methodology is a critical one, in the sense I laid down earlier in this post. It will also let me justify a number of claims made in my post on normativity and ontology.

In explaining this I want to combat an objection that Levi has made against my approach, namely, that I am “conflating an issue of epistemology– how our statements link up with objects –with an issue of ontology.“, and the implication that I am thereby falling into correlationism. The reason I am not conflating the two is precisely that I take a critical approach to ontology: I try to work out exactly what it is to do ontology and the demands it places on us before engaging in it. What Levi takes to be a conflation of epistemological and ontological claims is actually the making of certain critical claims (which do have epistemological implications) that delimit the nature of ontology. In virtue of their delimiting role, these claims are not themselves ontological claims. The relation here is just what Heidegger would identify as the relation between the formulation of the question of the meaning of Being and the actual inquiry into the meaning of Being itself.

I’m going to try and make this relation clear first, in order that we can then draw some conclusions about existence. I should also note here that I do not take Being (Sein, the Being of beings) and existence (Seiendheit, as in ‘Pete exists’) to be equivalent. I take existence to be simply one of the many ways in which Being is said. I also follow Heidegger in holding that ontology and metaphysics are not exactly the same thing, even though they are closely interlinked (see my earlier post on this here). This is because ontology is the inquiry into Being, and metaphysics is the inquiry into beingness, and this is just what beings are, or the essence of existence. If we recognise that Being is more than existence, we must separate ontology and metaphysics. However, it does not mean that we can’t do both, or even that we can do them properly in isolation from one another.

As a final note, this is a long post (over 6000 words). It’s length and density is due to necessity rather than desire. I appologise in advance for my inability to condense it further.

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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason – (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my discussion on Deleuze and sufficient reason. In this post, I’ll be explaining the some more of the details of my interpretation of Deleuze’s metaphysics. This won’t yet explain how Deleuze manages to reconcile sufficient reason with the principle of univocity, but it will start developing the necessary theoretical resources to to so.

3. Virtuality Contra Possibility

As I said in the last post, we are forced to choose between onto-theology and sufficient reason on the one hand, and negative theology and the rejection of sufficient reason on the other, only insofar as we think in terms of the possible and actual. Thus, in order to demonstrate how Deleuze escapes from this trap it is necessary to elucidate in brief his alternative to thinking in these terms, namely, his account of the virtual and it actualisation. Now, I don’t claim to understand the virtual in full. Grasping the proper nature of the virtual is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Deleuze’s philosophy, and I’m not sure anyone has done so entirely. However, I can explain it in part.

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Critique and Correlationism

Just a little interruption to clear up a point I made in a comment, which Levi has rightly called me on. The statement I made was as follows:-

“One of the problems I have with the general trend of speculative realism (and one of the reasons I don’t identify as a speculative realist) is precisely its reactionary tendency to reject the major figures of philosophy (primarily Kant and Heidegger) without trying to figure out what needs to be salvaged from their work. When it comes to Kant and Heidegger, there is a great deal of worth to salvage, and much of it would prevent speculative realists from repeating some of the mistakes that Kant/Heidegger were themselves reacting to.”

Levi has rightly called my on this by pointing out that there is some engagement with figures like Heidegger (particularly by Graham Harman) and Kant (I imagine Iain Grant is a touchstone here). What is more, Levi argues (as he has on his blog here, and here), for what he calls a re-construction of the history of philosophy, in which Object-Oriented philosophers (indeed, only one of the species of speculative realist) go back through the history of philosophy and read them as if they are object-oriented metaphysicians, to liberate hidden insights of their work. These points would seem to undermine the thesis I put forward above.

Now, I still think that thesis holds, but I am forced to make it more clear and specific (a good thing!). I do not object to the kind of creative exegesis that Levi is proposing through re-construction (hell I’m a Deleuzian, who am I to argue about creative appropriation?), but I think that there is a certain bit of a whole tradition of philosophy that SR won’t touch with a ten foot barge pole. I am thinking of the methodological insights of the critical tradition (and Heidegger).

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Deleuze: The Song of Sufficient Reason

After another post on the structure of normativity I owe people some metaphysics, so I’m going to return to my continuing elaboration of Deleuze. In my earlier posts I have indicated how what I have called the strong version of the principle of univocity is at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, in that many of the other decisions he makes in his metaphysics follows from it. I have also said that Deleuze’s system can be understood as a reinvention of Spinoza’s system to incorporate this principle (and thus also the ontological difference). In this post I want to talk about the other principle at the heart of Deleuze’s metaphysics, one which he shares with Spinoza: the principle of sufficient reason. In talking about this I hope to elaborate how other aspects of his metaphysics function, most importantly his monism.

I’ve been working on this post for a little while, and it’s ballooned to nearly 6000 words and climbing, so I’m going to break it up into parts. The first two parts I’m posting now will set the stage, and the following one’s will do some more in depth metaphysical work.

1. Sufficient Reason and Onto-theology

People have a tendency to ignore the fact that Deleuze accepts some form of the principle of sufficient reason, despite the fact that he says at one point that D&R is a book about sufficient reason. The fact that Deleuze accepts this is of a great deal of relevance in contemporary debates, given how fashionable it has become to reject it (see Badiou and Meillassoux, who I’ll will talk about a little below). However, the other important thing about Deleuze’s acceptance of the principle is that it at once both underscores his similarities with the key rationalist thinkers – Spinoza and Leibniz – but in doing so highlights the relevant ways he moves beyond them.

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Normativity and Rationality

Over at Grundlegung, Tom has put a few thoughts together on some of what I said in my post on Normativity and Ontology. He’s focused on my somewhat rushed claims about the nature of normativity, and I’m glad to have the opportunity to clear some of my opinions up, not least because they aren’t entirely settled yet. I’ve already put some initial thoughts down in a comment on his post, but I’m going to offer some more detailed thoughts here, some of which overlap with what I said there. First of all though, I’m going to clear up a few things about my approach, before I specifically address Tom’s worries.

1. The Primary Bind

The first thing I must repeat from my old post is what I called there the primary bind. This names the fact that there are some norms, which I have called the fundamental norms of rationality, that we are bound by insofar as we make any claims at all. This is because, although we may indeed argue about how we should argue, this kind of argument has a special structure insofar as we cannot disavow the standards (or norms) which determine what is correct in this case. To put it in a different way, we can neither deny the existence (formally pseudo-existence) of such standards (‘There is no way we should argue’), nor can we posit the existence of divergent standards (‘How I should argue is different from how you should argue’), without invalidating the argument itself, i.e., without ceasing to occupy a position (or make a claim) at all. Tom correctly identified my positing of this primary bind as a properly transcendental claim.

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Metaphysics after Heidegger

I’ve mentioned Heidegger a twice already on this blog, once in relation to Deleuze and Spinoza, and once in relation to my own work on Being and normativity. Kvond recently posted a question on the former post, asking why I take Deleuze’s reworking of Spinoza’s metaphysics to be a specifically post-Heideggerian one. I think it was fairly clear in that post why I take it to be post-Heideggerian, but I feel that I could reiterate the basic point, and in the course of it examine what it is to do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics.

The phrase ‘post-Heideggerian metaphysics’ is meant to have an important resonance, given that metaphysics is usually taken as the name of that philosophy which came before Heidegger, whose inadequacies he correctly diagnosed and overcame. We are often told that we can either accept Heidegger’s insights regarding Being and metaphysics and abandon metaphysical thinking, or revert to a pre-Heideggerian metaphysics, and that there is no middle ground. To do genuinely post-Heideggerian metaphysics would be to embrace certain of Heidegger’s insights but nevertheless reject his turn away from metaphysics, pursuing metaphysics in a way that is at least partially characterised by Heidegger’s portrayal of it. In short, it would be to pursue a metaphysical project through an explicit concern with Being (and thus, I would add, the question of the meaning of Being).

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Flat Ontology

Just pointing in the direction of Levi’s blog, and his recent discussion of flat ontology and signs. I’ve chipped in a little bit on the comments to try and clear up some of my confusion over what he means by flat ontology, so I thought I’d link it here (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/08/17/flat-ontology-and-signs/) rather than re-writing out some of my thoughts.

Will have something else up soon, part way through writing it but keep getting distracted.

Normativity and Ontology

I seem to have gotten quite a lot of traffic over the last few days, so thankyou to all of you taking time to visit. I must break my promises again, and write about something entirely different to what I have so far suggested. Someone pointed me in the direction of the Grundlegung blog (now linked in the sidebar), which I’m finding very interesting. It’s nice to see someone else interested in contemporary ontology and the philosophy of normativity at the same time. Specifically, I was very interested by his musings on how to reconcile a univocal account of Being and  the essentially normative character of rationality/subjectivity. This seems to be an ongoing discussion with Levi at LarvalSubjects (now also linked in the sidebar) to which I chipped in a little bit. I have promise to chip in more however, and so I’m going to try and explain the outlines of my own work on the relation between normativity and ontology. This also expands on a discussion I was having with Ray Brassier at the last speculative realism conference, about how to reconcile the normativity of thought with ontology.

Coming out of the discussion between Tom and Levi, there seem to be three major issues that need to be addressed:-

1) In what sense is the philosophy of normativity (or deontology) prior to, or foundational for, ontology?

2) If we understand subjects as uniquely normative, how can we reconcile this with a univocal ontology in which no kind of being has any ontological privilege?

3) If ontology is somehow grounded in the normative, how do we account for the ontological status of norms, and how do we avoid the same problems vis a vis univocity?

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Deleuze: Some Common Misunderstandings

To carry on the general theme of the last post, I thought I’d list in brief a few other common misunderstandings that I have encountered a number of times in Deleuze scholarship. These are my pet peeves.

1. Deleuze is not a transcendental philosopher

A lot of people do a double take when I mention this one, but its very true. Deleuze is indeed a transcendental empiricist, but the sense of transcendental here is different. There are really two different senses of the transcendental, a methodological sense (hence ‘transcendental philosopher’) and a more ontological sense (e.g. the ‘transcendental field’). To pursue a transcendental methodology is to inquire after conditions of possibility. Traditionally this is the Kantian project of the conditions of the possibility of experience, but there can be different objects of transcendental enquiry. The ontological sense refers to the conditions themselves, for instance, Kant’s categories, his pure forms of intuition, and the rest of his transcendental apparatus. These two senses neatly overlap in Kant, because what is sort in a transcendental enquiry is the transcendental conditions (conditions of possibility).

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